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Ambedkar [formerly Ambavadekar], Bhimrao Ramjilocked

(1891–1956)
  • Frank Moraes
  • , revised by Eleanor Zelliot

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956)

by unknown photographer

© reserved; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Ambedkar [formerly Ambavadekar], Bhimrao Ramji (1891–1956), politician, was born at Mhow in central India on 14 April 1891, the youngest of the fourteen children of Ramji Maloji Sakpal, a subahdar-major in the British Indian army and headmaster in a military school, and his wife, Bhimabai Murbadkar. When the boy was barely two his father retired and settled first at Dapoli, then at Satara, where he attended the high school. His family were untouchables, belonging to the community of Mahars, who, though of lowly caste, were reputed to be a spirited people from whom the Bombay army had obtained early recruits. The indignities, humiliations, and hardships to which he was subjected stirred in this proud, intelligent, and sensitive boy a bitter resentment which lingered with him to the end.

In 1900 he entered his surname in the government middle school enrolment lists as Ambedkar, from a teacher in Satara who had showed him kindness. He next attended Elphinstone high school in Bombay and later Elphinstone College with financial help from the Maharaja Gaikwar of Baroda. In 1906 he married Ramabai (d. 1935), daughter of Bhiku Dhutre, a railway porter at Dapoli. Of their four sons and one daughter, only the son survived. He graduated in 1912 and in the following year went with a three-year scholarship from the maharaja to Columbia University, New York, where he wrote his first publication, 'Castes in India' (Indian Antiquary, May 1917), and secured a PhD in economics. He then went to the London School of Economics and was admitted to Gray's Inn. Short of money, he returned to India, where the terms of his scholarship required him to enter the service of Baroda state. Although a junior administrative officer, as an untouchable he found himself treated with contempt by clerks and office boys, unable to obtain accommodation, and even denied food. Consequently, he left Baroda state in disgust and in November 1918 managed to secure a job as lecturer in political economy at Sydenham College, Bombay. Two years later he returned to England, where he was called to the bar in 1923 and in the same year obtained his DSc (London) for a thesis, subsequently published, entitled 'The problem of the rupee'. He returned to India in April 1923 and started legal practice in Bombay.

Ambedkar soon began to organize the untouchables and to make them socially and politically conscious through the first of a series of Marathi newspapers, a Society for the Welfare of the Depressed Classes with the motto 'Educate, agitate, organize', and satyagrahas (non-violent campaigns) for temple entry. Especially important were many conferences of the depressed classes, the most famous held in 1927 at Mahad, in which the traditional Hindu law book the Manusmriti was burned. Meanwhile, he testified on behalf of untouchables' rights to the franchise committee (1919) and to the Simon commission on constitutional reform (1928), was nominated to the Bombay legislative council (1925), and became a professor at the Government Law College (1928).

In September 1930 Ambedkar was officially invited to attend the Indian round-table conference on constitutional reform in London as a representative of the so-called depressed classes. His appointment marked a milestone in the socio-political struggle of the untouchables, for never before had they been consulted in framing the future of India. Ambedkar became an all-India figure. He used this vantage-point successfully to question with blunt and militant doggedness the claim of M. K. Gandhi to represent all India including the untouchables. The British government in 1932 announced its own communal award in relation to the newly reformed constitution, which treated the untouchables as politically separate from the Hindus. Gandhi, then in prison, launched on a protest fast, which led ultimately to negotiations with Ambedkar that culminated in the Poona pact of 1932, which conceded far more parliamentary representation to the untouchables than they had been allotted under the British award, but allowed the general electorate to elect ‘scheduled caste’ representatives, a situation which still exists. Ambedkar's criticism of the Congress Party and of caste Hindus grew increasingly strong and in 1935 he announced his intention to convert, with the words 'I will not die a Hindu'. However, he gave his chief attention to politics and in the same year founded the Independent Labour Party, the forerunner of the Scheduled Castes Federation (1946) and the Republican Party (1956).

In 1940 Ambedkar published Thoughts on Pakistan, which, though critical of some aspects of M. A. Jinnah's thinking, was not hostile to the idea of Pakistan. When in 1942 the viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, decided to expand his executive council, Ambedkar was invited to join it as the member in charge of labour. In 1945 he published his most critical book, What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables, and in the same year founded the People's Education Society, which still runs a broad spectrum of educational institutions.

As independence drew near, Ambedkar turned his attention and energies to the constructive constitutional tasks for which he was well equipped by training and temperament. He became a member of the constituent assembly in 1946 and as chair of the drafting committee became one of the principal architects of independent India's constitution. As law minister in Nehru's first cabinet he also contributed to the drafting of the Hindu Code Bill, in the process earning, not without some irony, the accolade of 'a modern Manu' after the legendary Hindu lawgiver. On 27 September 1951 he resigned from Jawaharlal Nehru's government, protesting at the slow pace of reform.

Ambedkar's first wife died in 1935, and in 1948 he married Sharada Kabir, a Saraswat Brahman by caste and a doctor by profession. In his later years ill health hampered the tempo of his normal activities, and his last days were occupied with the thought of embracing Buddhism, which he did, with many of his followers, at a ceremony in Nagpur in October 1956. In November he attended the fourth conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists at Katmandu, Nepal. It was his last public appearance. He died in his sleep on the night of 5–6 December 1956 at Delhi, and was cremated, his ashes being interred in Chaitua Bhumi, Shivasi Park, Bombay .

Ambedkar's fame has increased since his death, with the publication of dozens of books extolling his life and thought and the reprinting of all his writings by the government of Maharashtra. A network of colleges in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh are credited to his influence, and his followers have succeeded in forcing the renaming of a university as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University. The conversion to Buddhism continues, although slowly, but dalit sahitya, the literature of the oppressed, flourishes in Marathi, Gujarati, and Kannada, a tribute to Ambedkar's inspiration.

Sources

  • D. Keer, Dr. Ambedkar: life and mission (1962)
  • K. N. Kadam, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the significance of his movement: a chronology (1991)
  • Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: writings and speeches, ed. V. Moon, [16 vols.] (1979–)
  • E. Zelliot, From untouchable to Dalit: essays on the Ambedkar movement (1996)
  • A. K. Narain and D. C. Ahir, eds., Dr. Ambedkar, Buddhism, and social change (1994)

Archives

  • Ambedkar Library, Nagpur, Vasant Moon MSS
  • Ambedkar Library, Bombay, Vasant Moon MSS
  • Bombay University Library, Khairmoday MSS

Film

  • BFINA, ‘In the footsteps of Ambedkar’, Channel 4, 6 Jan 1989
  • priv. coll., Bombay
  • priv. coll., Hyderabad

Sound

  • BL NSA, documentary recordings

Likenesses

  • P. B. Ramteke, portrait, 1988, priv. coll.
  • M. Wagh, bust, 1994, Col. U.
  • M. Wagh, bronze statue, Bombay Maidan
  • M. Wagh, bronze statue, Parliament Building, New Delhi
  • photograph, repro. in Keer, Dr. Ambedkar [see illus.]